Moscow says it has ordered its troops to start returning to their permanent bases following extensive military drills in southern Russia and in and around the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March 2014.
The April 22 announcement comes amid heightened tensions with the West over Russia’s major military buildup around the areas of eastern Ukraine where fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the objectives of the snap inspection “have been fully achieved” and that the troops would return to their bases by May 1.
However, it was unclear from Shoigu’s announcement if the return order covered all of the troops involved in the Russian buildup near Russia’s southern border and in occupied Crimea — one of several issues that have roiled tensions between Russia and the West.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted that the “reduction of troops on our border proportionally will reduce tensions.”
“Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support,” Zelenskiy’s tweet said.
An unidentified NATO official said in Brussels that “any steps toward de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue,” adding that the Western alliance “remains vigilant.”
The official called on Russia to “withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States would wait for to see if Russia followed through after Shoigu’s announcement.
“We’ve heard the words. I think what we’ll be looking for is action,” Price told reporters.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was prepared to host Zelenskiy in Moscow at “any time.”
“If we are talking about bilateral relations, then, by all means, we are ready to welcome the president of Ukraine at any time that is convenient for him,” Putin told reporters in Moscow.
The Ukrainian president invited Putin on April 20 to meet him “anywhere” in eastern Ukraine for talks on calming tensions.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its drills near Russia’s southern border and in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft, and about 1,200 military vehicles.
But the military hasn’t reported the total number of additional troops that have been moved to the region.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat said on April 19 that Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near the border, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on April 20 that the Russian buildup across the border was continuing and was “expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops” in about a week if it didn’t stop.
Russia has argued that it has the right to deploy its forces anywhere on its territory and claimed that they don’t threaten anyone.
Ukraine and many other countries refuse to recognize the annexation of Crimea and consider it a violation of international law and Russian-signed agreements safeguarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Shoigu said the military had to be ready to respond quickly in case of an “unfavorable” developments arising from NATO’s DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercises, an annual, U.S. Army-led, multinational joint exercise across 26 countries in Europe and Africa, including Estonia — which shares a border with Russia — Bulgaria, and Romania.
The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border came amid stepped-up violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east and prompted the West to urge Moscow to pull its forces back.
The United States and NATO have said that the buildup was the largest since 2014, when Russia forcibly seized Crimea and threw its military, political, and economic support behind separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine.
The Crimea maneuvers included the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on April 22, with fighter jets providing air cover for the operation.
Shoigu oversaw the exercise flying in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea.
Russia last week announced the closing of large areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November, prompting protests from Ukraine and raising Western concerns.
Moscow also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with international law.
Moscow also warned Kyiv against trying to retake by force separatist-held territory in the east of Ukraine, saying that Russia could step in to protect civilians in the region.
Zelenskiy on April 21 signed an order allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization.